The sad state of the American hoopster

It wasn't quite a roundtable close to resembling ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" or NBC's "Meet The Press," but a basketball junkie's type of talk took place literally around a round table Monday night at former Nuggets assistant coach and NBA scout Bill Ficke's "New York Pizza" restaurant in Denver.

While speaking on everything from the old ABA to Kiki Vandeweghe through bites of a Sicilian thick square pizza, the participants at the extremely informal discussion included Ficke, basketball scouting camp guru Dana Pump, former ABA player Roland "Fatty" Taylor, some local high school coaches and a referee and a lowly sports writer. And while a lot of hoops subjects were touched on along with many slices, the main topic of discussion, with the World Basketball Championships on the horizon, regarded whether or not those pesky foreigners could close the gap on the beloved Americans.

"Oh yeah, absolutely," Pump emphatically said. "(The overseas player's) mind set is so serious. They are so much more passionate. U.S. kids take everything for granted. European kids are appreciative."

The average, U.S.-born, hoops-playing kid would tell Pump to "stop hating." But if anyone knows about the state of today's youth roundball movement, it is Pump and his brother David. The Los Angeles Valley-based twins have developed a scouting and camp service that now includes 5,000 high school and junior college players. One of the first international players ever to join their camp was a Frenchman named Olivier Saint-Jean in the mid-1990s who now goes by Tariq Abdul-Wahad and plays for the Dallas Mavericks.

When the Pumps began their camps in the late 1980s with mostly Californians, there were many hungry hoopsters who spent time in their program, such as Ed and Charles O'Bannon, Lamond Murray, Brent Barry and an aspiring, lowly sports writer/6-foot-6 power forward. Today, the Pumps run the adidas Big Time Tournament prep camp in Las Vegas that includes the nation's top high school players and numerous exhibition teams that take on the likes of Duke and Arizona in October. In recent years, more and more aspiring Abdul-Wahads have come the Pumps' way. And today, those European kids are the ones who have the Michael Jordan-type work ethic.

When it comes to fundamentals, Pump says today's foreign players are easily ahead of Americans. Overseas kids always had the fundamentals and jumper down. Now, the once-cement-footed Europeans will dunk on you.

"They're in better shape and would run in the mornings before camp began," Pump said.

American kids?

"All every American kid wants to do is dunk," said Ficke, who has a 15-year-old son with hoop dreams of his own.

Not helping matters are popular And1 videos and the like that showcase Harlem Globetrotter-like dribbling on the nation's playground. While they're definitely entertaining, the tapes promote showboating through dribbling and dunking. The art of fundamentals are left for the girls, literally. And when the American kids of today are finished spending 12 minutes working on their dunks and crossover dribble, the rest of their time is consumed by video games, booty-shaking music videos and DVDs.

"There are too many other things in their life," Ficke said. "Movies, PlayStation2. Then there are the parents of today. Once one of their kids gets a base hit or makes a layup, they think their child is going pro and put pressure on the kid. The kid ends up not wanting to play.

"One lady once told me, 'I will be so excited when my son dunks in a game.' I told her, 'I will be so excited when he hits a jump shot.' "

As for the foreigners, they play pro basketball at 15 years old. Two-a-day practices aren't uncommon overseas, as well as workouts devoted solely to fundamentals. While American kids playing AAU are shuttled on jets and stay at posh hotels -- and also get something under the table -- these young international players work on their games all day, take buses to war-torn towns and make McDonald's wages.

With the midnight hour looming and the roundtable members making up the only remaining patrons, the American basketball bashing reached a close. Before departing, I recalled how disgusted I was when the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series back-to-back. Sure, the team was dominated by Americans, but how could a team from Canada win a title in America's national pastime? Now, I was beginning to forsee a day when less than half of the NBA all-star team would be American-born.

And the future doesn't look good. With foreigners seeing basketball as a means of making a way of life and young Americans focused on emulating a back-flip dunk they saw in a video game, it is just a matter of time before the United States has to start closing the gap with a return to fundamentals.

While walking to my car, Pump told me to make sure I told George Karl hello for him once I got to Indianapolis. While Karl had nothing to do with our roundtable discussion, the USA basketball and Milwaukee Bucks coach recently gave his take on the state of the American hoopster.

"European and international basketball have shown their professionalism and maturity at a young age," Karl said. "The reason we're drafting international players is our AAU babies don't even go in the gym half the year."

Man, these young American kids today are messing it up. But then again, wasn't that the same thing our parents and our elders said about us, too?

Marc J. Spears covers the Denver Nuggets and the NBA for The Denver Post.